Community Fatherhood Groups Battle For Existence, Recruits and Money

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Florence, S.C.—Enveloped in the picturesque, seductive spring greenery and perfumed breezes of this sprawling Up Country Southern city, but left out of the area's on-fire economic growth, is a largely shunned and unknown population of never-married young fathers slowly being lured out of hiding by the promise of a driver's license, a job and relief from the pressures of child support enforcement programs.

The Catch-22 child support enforcement policies of many states (South Carolina included) automatically revoke the driver's licenses of men arrested for not making support payments.

"In this state you don't need a high school diploma to get a job, but you need a driver's license," remarks license-less Montray Wilson, 25, a noncustodial father of four who served 45 days last fall for child support delinquency.

Wilson belongs to what Joseph Jones, executive director of the Baltimore-based Center for Fathers, Families and Workforce Development, terms "a subculture of hundreds of thousands of unemployed and underemployed young men who have no valid state IDs, no vital records, no Social Security cards, no birth certificates - they are unrecognized and uncounted."

That's where community-based fatherhood programs step in: to penetrate what Jones calls "sometimes unfriendly" low-income neighborhoods, find this subculture of young fathers and "bring them above ground by challenging them to join the mainstream. And giving them a sense of self by assisting in obtaining basic citizen documents."

As Jones "started from scratch" with his Men's Services program in 1993 (when, he says, there was no data on what to do or how to proceed), so did Tom Keith, executive director of the Columbia-based Sisters of Charity Foundation of South Carolina. "We wanted to step in and fill a gap where not a lot is being done," Keith says.

Two years ago the Foundation launched a statewide Fatherhood Initiative program that has funded 11 programs to the tune of $4 million. "There will be $2 million more to come," says Keith. Jones has been among the many leaders of community-based fatherhood projects invited to South Carolina by the foundation to share their expertise.

Last month the foundation underscored this effort by involving 40 policymakers from around the state - including former judges, Urban League officials, local politicians and representatives of the state's Department of Health and Human Services - in the launching of its South Carolina Fatherhood Policy Project Office. The office - charged with identifying and changing policies that inhibit fathers from fulfilling their roles as effective parents, and with creating a think tank to research and analyze fatherhood-related policies, practices and attitudes - opened with the in-person blessing of Ronald Mincy, a Ford Foundation senior program officer in charge of its Strengthening Fragile Families initiative.

"If the [fatherhood] field is going to happen," Mincy said the day after his appearance, "it will have to go past the work of foundations and national organizations and root in the hundreds of local programs all over the country."

'Refreshing Dimension'

Asked to explain the sizable commitment by the Sisters of Charity Foundation, Keith explains that the focus on fatherhood arose because the foundation, dedicated to eliminating poverty, determined that one of poverty's major causes was the absence of fathers in families. Consequently, its ambitious foray into re-engaging fathers with their children has spurred a variety of multi-faceted programs tailored to specific community needs.

The Father to Father program in North Charleston, for example, features personal development and parenting skills, while the Our Fathers Initiative in Georgetown serves the needs of fathers drawing jail time for non-payment of child support. Montray Wilson attends the five-day-a-week Fatherhood Engagement Program here in Florence that puts a premium on hands-on job training and, at the end of a 16-week cycle, job referrals. Participants spend one day a week at a local adult education center pursuing their G.E.D.s, another day on personal counseling, carpentry and construction job courses, and three days at a work site, where they get sawdust in their hair and paint on their faces.

The foundation funds the bulk of the programs for three years at $120,000 annually. Each program operates with several collaborating community partners, such as the Florence Boys & Girls Club, alcohol and drug abuse agencies, local departments of health and social services, and child support enforcement agencies that are pulled in to ease legal requirements that may deter a young father from participating in a program. All foundation-funded programs also feature faith-based one-on-one sessions "when needed" between administrators and participants.

"They are not mandated, but encouraged," Keith says. "We're told by those who seek it that it's a refreshing dimension to look at the spiritual aspect. To look at values and the heart of a man can make all the difference in the world."

Confederate Flags and Du Pont

Robert Williams, the Fatherhood Engagement Program coordinator, takes disgusted note of the Confederate flags on display in front lawns and over business offices in and around Florence County. Flapping merrily in the light, steady breeze, the polarizing flags give way to commerce with a capital "C" with the seemingly stretched-to-the-horizon acreage of the recently completed Roche Pharmaceutical Co. complex and a huge Du Pont facility landscaped to within an inch of its life.

Like San Francisco and Philadelphia, the city of Florence takes the same name as the county in which it resides and serves as its chief attraction. Giant Oak trees with hanging purplish white moss as featured on the cover of the best-selling book "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" are a distinct adornment of the city's many marshes and cemeteries. Add to this the scores of Dogwoods bursting with blossoms dotting lush, rolling hills, and the hundreds of one-story detached homes with bountiful yard space, and one is given the impression that the fish are jumpin' and the livin' is easy.

But this isn't necessarily so. With a population of some 123,000 persons, Florence County's breakdown of those living below the poverty level shows a disparity between whites and African Americans that directly affects its fatherhood program. While 9 percent of whites live below the poverty level, the rate for African Americans is over 37 percent - that translates to one in every three black Florence Countians living in poverty. Coordinator Williams, 35, a Florence native, is particularly concerned that the area has turned its back on young African-American males who are high school dropouts and have no marketable skills. "When city, county and state authorities give up on them," he says, "these young men with ongoing health, domestic and economic issues give up on themselves."

That said, Williams is still impressed by both the city's scenic wonders and its economy. "This is one of the fastest-growing economic areas in the state," he says, "and we have to tap into it for the benefit of these home-grown young men." With this in mind, he had just managed to snag a dozen used computers from a local Air Force facility, promising that they'd be up and running in his modest-size training area within weeks.

New Attitude, New Community

Since last April, some 194 fathers ranging in age from 17 to 25 have signed up for his program. Eleven young fathers have been placed in manufacturing or service sector jobs during the same period. Although Williams' assistant and chief instructor, Alvin Woods, (it's a two-man staff) provides transportation in the Fatherhood Engagement van, the rigors of reporting every day have resulted in many dropouts. But those who go through the full cycle, working on an eight-man crew that performs carpentry and home repair, boast about their accomplishments.

"I've stopped drinking and I love the work," says 18-year-old Jermaine McCall, now in a three-day-a-week work cycle that ends in May.

Keith notes that even those "who go in and out of the program" have benefited because they know there is a place that offers self-sufficiency assistance. As for those who complete their cycle: "We've not only helped them, but [we've also helped] other family members because a negative attitude has been changed and a job has been found. The whole community is affected positively."

All qualified participants are paid an hourly minimum wage ($5.15) and are insured for any injury that may result while performing a job in the community. The bi-weekly take is about $225, with some (like Wilson) getting less than half that because of a pre-arranged child support deduction. In fact, Williams came to Wilson's defense and negotiated the present arrangement, which puts more in his pocket than originally ordered.

"I'm with all four of my kids every weekend now," remarks Wilson, who was arrested during an earlier cycle and served a full 45-day sentence before telling Williams. "I'm glad I told him because now I'm back with the program and getting to know my kids."

'Double Whammy'

Participants are also staked to work boots, a tool belt and a hammer, together costing about $175. This equipment, plus the weekly stipend, are paid for by the foundation, but the successful contract bidder who won the right to operate the program - Telamon, a nonprofit based in Columbia - must hustle for small grants to pay for wiring and other materials that the fathers use to repair the homes of low-income seniors. One such source for both money and the names of eligible seniors is the 15-year-old Housing Preservation Grant program funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development out of a local state office.

"This is a double whammy," observes Telamon official John Myers, "because we help low-income families while also training young fathers in the fundamentals of rehabbing and construction work."

Neal Zimmerman, director of the Florence County Boys & Girls Club and chairman of the Fatherhood Engagement board of directors, praises the program: "There's a happy marriage here. Those kids we lose at the Boys & Girls Club, the fatherhood program picks up. And they offer the best employment instruction around." Zimmerman offers his sports facility freely for use by fatherhood participants.

Keith pointedly remarks that one day Sisters of Charity fatherhood money will run out; the foundation hopes that when this happens, the local fatherhood groups, allied with their community partners, will become self-sufficient by writing their own grants and proposals.

The Washington Game

"Sustainability is the problem for the smaller, free-standing community-based fatherhood groups because they have very little natural funding streams," observes Preston Garrison, executive director of the 200-member D.C.-based National Practitioners Network for Fathers and Families. "We're doing the toughest work in social services, yet too many fatherhood programs, because of their newness, are tacked on to existing programs - so when dollars dry up they are the first to go. It is a precarious existence."

He gets back-up from Jones (of the Baltimore-based Center for Fathers, Families and Workforce Development) and from Stephen MacIssac and Jerry Tello, who head community-based programs in Pittsburgh and Los Angeles, respectively.

"I have a one-year city Healthy Start grant that runs out in August," says an exasperated Jones, "with a new Healthy Start that picks up in September and runs through May. They've shortened the time on me."

In addition, he says a $400,000 grant from the Baltimore-based Abell Foundation runs out at the end of the year. "I've got to take time away from my programs, and scramble to write proposals and seek funders to keep operating."

The Young Fathers Program at Pittsburgh's Hill House began in 1986 as a component of the Young Mothers Program, but it was "touch-and-go" for years, says MacIssac, director of operations. The program suspended operation for one year for lack of funds, he says. Things are different now: The $225,000-per-year program has the verbal and financial blessing of Gov. Thomas Ridge (R), whose state-run Pennsylvania Fatherhood Initiative pumps money into the now autonomous Young Fathers Program.

"We need federal funding for seeding the development and infrastructure of these programs," says Garrison. His organization is pressing for Senate passage Fathers Count Act of 1999, which calls for dispensing $140 million to community-based groups nationwide. The act has been passed by the House.

'Rhythm of the Community'

Jerry Tello, a 25-year youth field veteran who runs the Los Angeles-based National Latino Fatherhood and Family Institute, says money is important, "but you've got to keep focused on people."

Latino Fatherhood operates programs such as Con Los Padres, Hombres Jovenes Con Palabra and Padres in Los Angeles. His organization has survived since 1986 on a "variety" of public and private sector grants. He lightly recounts his most recent experience with a grantmaker's funding promises: "First it was 'yes,' then 'no,' then 'I don't know,' and then a few weeks ago it was 'yes' again."

An avid proponent of the federal Fathers Count money, Tello says the teen fathers he hires (currently five, which is half his staff) keep him focused, "in tune" and are a constant reminder of "knowing why I'm doing what I do." His creation of a youth board as part of the organization's decision-making process has brought forth ideas concerning innovative voluntary contacts with their peers that have yielded results that go beyond proposal-encased dreams.

"But community-based groups like ours will always need money," he laments. "Because we are essential. We are the link. We are the rhythm of the community."